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SPX 2004
By Various
Published by The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund; $9.95 USD

I skipped buying this annual anthology last year because the previous volumes had mostly disappointed me; the lure this year was two-fold: Steve Lieber contributes a beautiful cover, and the theme this year is war. Lieber's cover, unfortunately, is the best thing about the book: a starkly realistic-looking tank grinds up comics icons from every era of the artform. It's a haunting image with multiple interpretations possible, and one of Lieber's very best illustrations.

Inside, Matt Dembicki's "Blonds Have More Fun" takes a Joe Sacco-like approach to a WW2-era story that is genuinely horrific and frightening; Lonnie Allen's "USA WAR Instruction Manual" is reminiscent of the agitprop to be found for the past couple of decades in World War Three Illustrated, using a clip-art style to comment on out-of-control U.S. aggression quite pointedly. These are the stand-out pieces of a mostly disappointing collection of stories that often fail to engage the reader or comment in any meaningful way on the subject at hand. Dembicki and Allen's pieces, and Lieber's cover, make me long at this point for a "Best of SPX" anthology that could rescue the occasional good pieces from over the years into one quality volume. Grade: 2.5/5


Demo #11
By Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan
Published by AiT/Planet Lar; $2.95 USD

As a writer, Brian Wood seems to be drawn again and again to the theme of growing up and growing away from the friendships of adolescence. "Midnight to Six" distills this theme into a three-character play set in a closed supermarket on the graveyard clean-up shift. Brad, Jill and Jace are three young people who decided when they were 13 that they would adhere to "The Slacker Pledge" all their lives, and now ten years later at least two of them are wavering in their committment to the pledge; adulthood and responsibility call. One, of course, is a slacker and resents the way the other two seem to be betraying him.

Maybe it's the big 4-0 looming on my personal horizon less than two years from now, but as a theme "slackerism" doesn't really speak to me. Wood's comics, from Pounded to Channel Zero and beyond have been packed with faux cool-kids who irk when the suspicion is that Wood sees them as admirably anti-establishment. His greatest strength in this story isn't in convincing the reader one way or the other about whether 'tis better to slack off or meet the challenges of adulthood, but rather in painting amusing and occasionally convincing portraits of three very different people all facing essentially the same dilemma.

No real answers are offered, and there's a decided lack of narrative cohesion in the story's conclusion that marks this as perhaps the least satisfying of the mostly excellent stories Demo has offered up. As is usual, Cloonan's art is stunning, utilizing her increasing mastery of black and white to place us firmly within the little world Wood creates. Wood may or may not get past his by-now familiar narrative concerns someday, but this series has been a powerful showcase for Cloonan's impressive and growing artistic skillset, and while individual issues have varied in quality, overall Demo has been a worthy experiment and I look forward to the concluding issue. Grade: 4/5


1000 Steps to World Domination
By Rob Osborne
Published by AiT/Planet Lar; $12.95 USD

I once worked with a man who talked to himself in the bathroom. He spent a lot of time in the bathroom, and my co-workers and I could often hear him muttering to himself as we walked past the bathroom door, but no one wanted, of course, to be seen hanging around outside the bathroom with their ear to the door long enough to make out what the hell he was going on about.

Bastard that I am, I put a voice-activated cassette recorder over the stall above the ceiling tiles and left it there for 24 hours. The next day, I eagerly dug it out of the ceiling and played it, hearing Larry (oops) say to himself "You can GNARRRRRGH do it, you can ARRRRRRRRGHN, you can do it." Larry was diagnosed (by me) with ARP, Ass Related Problems, and his little pep talk was no doubt designed to help him move things along. As it were.

That's what Rob Osborne's 1000 Steps to World Domination reminds me of, a private pep-talk that never really seems to accomplish anything. By page three, Osborne has decided he will "Dominate the World," art tools gripped dramatically in his fist. A hundred or more pages later (no page numbers are included), he's still posing dramatically, promising "Ready or not, world, HERE I COME!" The end.

Oh, in-between the promise-filled beginning and the, well, promise-unfulfilled ending, Osborne includes a few amusing sequences, endlessly promising to take over the world with his swell comics with an occasional interlude from a talking monkey or anal probe-wielding space aliens, and scattered quotes from people who actually knew something about success and domination. Osborne's plans never go beyond his intial determination to conquer, though, and the awkward faces and mostly uninspired drawing skills he displays do nothing to convince the reader that he has the goods to make good on his plans. As a rumination on comics, James Kochalka did this much better, cheaper and more convincingly years ago in The Horrible Truth About Comics.

Maybe it's all a big gag that I don't get -- the end has Osborne sardonically putting off his big plans to take out the garbage dressed as Napoleon (ha, ha). Osborne has used this graphic novel as a platform to try his hand at drawing oddities like, well, a talking monkey and anal probe-wielding space aliens. The time, effort and money might better have been spent creating a compelling story that could actually convince readers he has the talent needed to entertain and enlighten them, rather than provide a momentary diversion that costs three times what it should. Grade: 3/5

-- Alan David Doane



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